Football’s most notorious and fiery debate (other than VAR) once again came to the fore at the World Cup in Russia. The age old question being, who is better, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi?
We have seen these two heavyweights stand head and shoulders above everyone else for over a decade now and much of the build up to this summer’s international tournament focused on which one would lead their country to glory. Unfortunately, things didn’t go to plan for either man with both getting early planes home after their respecitve nations bowed out at the last 16 stage – Argentina bested in a World Cup classic against France and Portugal beaten narrowly by an impressive Uruguay.
Argentina may have pushed France as far as they could but this World Cup will not be seen as anything but a massive disappointment for Messi and co. They were stunted by a committed Iceland team in the opening fixture, utterly outmatched by Croatia and despite an improved performance in the win against Nigeria there was a huge slice of luck in their progression to the knockout stages. The team looked shaky at the back and lacked ideas going forward. With a team with such quality players throughout their squad, particularly up front, the football world couldn’t help but feel unfulfilled by the Argentine campaign. What emerged as well was a seemingly popular view that Messi couldn’t deliver on the international stage.
This contrasts quite heavily with the established view of Ronaldo and Portugal. Portugal have been viewed as being a one-man team for a while now as they have continually relied on Ronaldo to drag them through qualification, most obvious as they scraped into Euro 2016, and of course he was their star man in France two years ago when they were crowned unlikely European champions. In Russia, the same narrative persisted with Ronaldo’s hat-trick in the thriller against Spain and the winner against Morocco. More and more people seem to be saying Ronaldo delivers on the world stage whilst Messi falls short.
This view seems to be not only exaggerated but a little misguided. Firstly, the obvious thing that still needs pointing out is that football is a team sport. No matter the calibre of the player, and we are talking of the highest possible level, no one man can win a World Cup. For all of Messi’s quality he can’t prevent a goalkeeping mistake like Caballero’s against Croatia nor can he win the ball, create the chance and score the goal every single time which it often seems like he is trying to do for Argentina.
Similarly for all of Ronaldo’s stand-out moments and performances for Portugal they should not dilute the importance of players like Rui Patricio, Pepe and William Carvalho have been to their success. This is all to say that you have to look at the state of the teams before making a judgement of who is better for their country. It seems like Portugal are more balanced and tighter squad than Argentina. The rumours of fall outs and arguments between manager Jorge Sampaoli and the squad (and even the unlikely reports of Messi picking the team) show a talented group in total disarray off the pitch, which has been clearly transferred to their on-pitch performances. Despite all this it is simply harsh to say that Messi had a bad tournament. Not only is he forced to play several roles in one, he stepped up with a great and crucial goal against Nigeria and two vital assists in the last 16 loss to France. The much talked about penalty miss against Iceland was poor but Ronaldo also missed a penalty in Portugal’s draw with Iran and was unable to make a difference in the final game against Uruguay.
What should be taken away therefore is that it’s clear both players are more than capable of delivering on the international stage but are unable to do absolutely everything for their teams. It’s also difficult to prove the view that Ronaldo is far stronger than Messi internationally. Yes, Portugal won Euro 2016 giving Ronaldo that coveted major trophy that has so far eluded Messi and Argentina. However, things have come so close to being different. With Messi being the strongest performer, Argentina have made it to the 2014 World Cup final which they lost in extra time and two successive Copa America finals with Chile (interestingly managed by Sampaoli in 2015) which they both lost on penalties. If Gonzalo Higuain finished just one of the key chances he had in each of these finals then we would be talking about Messi’s incredible international dominance. What if’s and could haves can only say so much in football but it is harsh to say Messi hasn’t delivered the goods for his country. They wouldn’t have been in Russia in the first place if it wasn’t for his genius performance against Ecuador. And for all of Ronaldo’s own genius, when it really mattered in France his teammates had to win the Euros without him after his first half injury.
So as these two titans of the game both bow out of the World Cup, perhaps for the last time, how can their legacies be viewed and compared to the other greats of the game? The two players usually heralded as the greatest of all time Pele and Maradona both have winners medals and long highlight reels from their World Cup performances. The same cannot be said for Messi and Ronaldo who, for all their iconic moments and unbeatable club records, have never scored a World Cup knockout goal. However, this should not devalue the quality of these two greats. Cruyff, Di Stefano, Eusebio, Best, Platini and Zico are all players of the highest level whom never won the most coveted trophy. That’s football at the end of the day, there can only be one winner, and it goes to the best team rather than the best player.
The Ronaldo and Messi debate will go on forever. They share the same number of Ballon D’or’s with five apiece and both have incredible goal records in Spain and Europe. Ronaldo fans will point to his five Champions Leagues whilst Messi’s followers will mention his nine La Liga trophies. For over a decade these two players have been on a different planet when compared to their peers but when it comes to the World Cup it seems neither’s country could reach the promised land. That says a lot about what makes this tournament so special, that even the two greatest players in history were unable to conquer the sport’s greatest title.
It seems someone else will lead their country to glory this year in what will likely be their career’s crowning achievement. Whomever it is, it is fairly safe to say that despite reaching the very top of the mountain their career as a whole will pale in comparison to those of the icons of Messi and Ronaldo, the greatest of all time.